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RI issues new OT rules as costs soar statewide

Politics

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island officials have adopted a new policy they hope will help curb fast-growing overtime costs, but the rules will not stop workers from pulling 32-hour shifts at the Department of Corrections.

R.I. Department of Administration Director Michael DiBiase issued the new policy to state agencies this month, saying the goal is “to ensure the use of overtime work is kept to a minimum,” according to documents obtained by Target 12.

The new rules tighten reporting requirements, define eligibility for overtime authorization and limit employees to working no more than 16 consecutive hours. State lawmakers estimate the policy change will save Rhode Island $1 million during the fiscal 2019-20 year beginning July 1, according to budget documents.

“We believe increasing accountability and transparency will help curb unnecessary overtime and result in productive discussions about why it fluctuates in certain areas,” said Department of Administration spokesperson Brenna McCabe.

The new policy supersedes most existing overtime policies that may be followed by individual departments, but with one major exception.

Corrections is the largest driver of overtime costs across all state agencies, according to an analysis of payroll records, and in recent years correctional officers have increasingly worked 32-hour consecutive shifts, allowing employees to earn up to double their wages in overtime pay.

The new OT policy will not limit the 32-hour shifts – known as “quads” – because they are authorized by the state’s contract with the Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers union.

McCabe underscored that other provisions of the new overtime policy will still apply to the Department of Corrections, saying while officials would prefer the quads did not happen, “the state must abide by its contractual obligations.”

“We expect quads will be a topic of discussion during the next round of union contract negotiations,” McCabe said.

Rhode Islanders paid $84 million in overtime last fiscal year and more than a third of the money was spent at Corrections, according to a Target 12 review of payroll data.

The number of correctional officers who volunteer to work the four consecutive eight-hour shifts has been on the rise, growing from 1,930 in 2016 to 4,206 in 2018, according to the department.  

Richard Ferruccio, the head of the correction officers union, said last month the quads represent a small percentage of the department’s overall overtime costs. But the opportunity to make a lot of money is there, as correctional officers can earn time-and-a-half for overtime between eight and 16 hours, then double time for 16 to 32 hours.

Ferruccio attributed the rise in marathon shifts to a previous hiring freeze, insisting that “every one of those quads was filling a shift, filling a post, in the facilities.” The department has 24-hour operations, meaning staffing levels are required around the clock, he added.

The R.I. Department of Behavioral Health, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals is the second-largest driver of overtime costs, as the department spent nearly $15 million on overtime last fiscal year, representing 18% of total overtime costs across state government.

The department also has 24/7 operations with the Eleanor Slater Hospital, which accounted for two-thirds of BHDDH’s overtime costs, according to the department. Unlike Corrections, however, BHDDH does not allow employees to work more than 16 consecutive hours, according to spokesperson Randy Edgar.

“I believe the policy here would be consistent with DOA if they have approved a 16-hour cap,” Edgar said, referring to the new Department of Administration rules.

Overall, state leaders say paying overtime instead of hiring new employees is a balancing act they try to make work. Overtime is more costly than regular pay, but new employees mean new fixed costs, including salaries, health insurance and retirement benefits.

With the new reporting requirements under the DOA policy, however, McCabe said she’s confident better data surrounding the issue will help the state decide whether future staffing changes are needed.

“There are many cases where allowing overtime is more prudent than hiring new people to fill positions, but there must be a balance,” McCabe said. “This policy also will ensure we have clear and consistent policies and procedures among the agencies and assist the state with making more data-driven personnel decisions.”

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter

Tim White contributed to this report.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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